LAS VEGAS — Luka Doncic hasn’t played a minute in the NBA Summer League. He won’t suit up in Las Vegas and, just yesterday, he signed his first NBA deal. And yet, he’s far more impressive than Trae Young.
This isn’t fact, of course. This is based purely on the public’s perception and fascination with summer basketball, which exists to give us a first chance to see rookies and a license to crystal-ball about their impact in the league.
Perspective tends to get buried in summer ball, which in and of itself is an amazing success story for the NBA. The public interest in seeing a bunch of basketball dreamers is almost as intense as the scorching heat that greets fans who come in droves. The games at Thomas & Mack Arena and Cox Pavilion are usually packed and two networks (ESPN and NBA TV) show every tipoff in prime time, which generates curiosity. For the first time, all 30 teams are repping Vegas and, with the start of the next season three long months away, the appetite for the NBA is temporarily quenched.
The dirty little secret is most of these players — say, 75 percent — won’t be on a roster when LeBron James makes his debut with the Los Angeles Lakers this fall. And of the remaining players, only a handful — say, five or six — will make noise as rookies.
That said, Young isn’t tearing it up in summer ball and the armchair experts are eating that up.
He’s the most-watched player in Vegas mainly because he’s the most polarizing player in Vegas. Young went viral last season in college at Oklahoma twice: first, when he constantly hit buckets from 30 feet for about two months, and then again when he couldn’t buy a shot from anywhere. Folks howled and punished Young for being compared to Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry — even though Young didn’t do the comparing.
That was done by some “expert analyst” on TV and suddenly, the bar was impossibly and unfairly raised. Matching Young with a two-time MVP only because of their shared size and shot selection is like always comparing one white player to another white player.
Then came draft night, and the Hawks swung a deal with the Mavericks, giving Doncic, the legendary European teenager, to Dallas for Young and a top-5 protected 2019 first-round pick. That trade went down in Atlanta like unsweetened tea. Fans wanted Doncic, someone that few ever saw play except for video highlights, which of course always edit out the bad parts.
As for Young? Everyone saw him on TV and all his faults. He finished poorly in college despite leading the country in scoring and assists (a first), is barely six feet tall and needs to toughen up on defense (like most rookies).
While the mystery about Doncic continues as he watches Summer League from the bench, Young is causing a stir back in Atlanta and not for all the right reasons. He’s shooting 25 percent overall and 18 percent from deep. On Sunday he missed his only two shots and had a sloppy turnover before tweaking his quad and calling it a night.
(Curry, in his Summer League debut in 2009, averaged 17.4 ppg while shooting 32.5 percent overall and 34.5 percent on 3-pointers. The top two Summer League scorers for Golden State in ’09 were Anthony Morrow and Anthony Randolph. Take that for what it’s worth.)
It’s not the missed shots that are perplexing, though, as volume shooters can sometimes brick them in bunches. Young isn’t creating much space between himself and his defender, which tends to confirm concerns about his lack of first-step quickness and athletic ability. What happens when he sees far better defenders in the 2018-19 season? With the exception of his passing skills — which are sharp and often entertaining — this first impression overall isn’t going well.
However, he’s handling that well.
“Everywhere I’ve ever played, everyone’s watching,” Young said. “This is normal. But I’ve worked extremely hard to get to that point where people watch. Everything else comes with it, the good and the bad. When I miss a few shots, I try to make the next shot. To me, it’s all about the next shot, next play. I don’t dwell on it. I know I’ve progressed here and every game has gotten better.”
Hawks forward John Collins, who survived some Summer League jitters in 2017 and had a solid rookie season, said: “I know things are going to come at him pretty fast, so I tell him to relax. Tell him to breathe. I know he has a lot of pressure on him. Whenever I see him make a good play, I know what he’s capable of doing. He’ll be fine. I tell him it’s just Summer League, there’s still time to develop and get ready.”
And that’s sound advice for Young and anyone who takes this summer ball too seriously.
Last summer in Vegas, Lonzo Ball was Trae Young: a point guard made polarizing by his overbearing father who shot poorly initially before finishing strong and winning Summer League MVP honors. Ball was destined for instant stardom, at least according to the level of applause from Laker fans. Then he shot 36 percent and 30.6 percent on 3-pointers last season. With LeBron in the fold, the Lakers just signed Rajon Rondo to help with, or take over, the point guard duties.
What do Jerryd Bayless, Glen Rice Jr., Tyus Jones and Randy Foye have in common? All were Summer League MVPs. None did anything in the NBA that anyone can remember.
While Young clanked shot after shot, another player the Hawks bypassed in the Draft had a strong start. Jaren Jackson Jr., taken fourth by Memphis, showed a 3-point touch and solid instincts as a rim protector. The reaction was all positive. Then on Sunday, Jackson missed eight of his nine shots and collected five fouls. As is usually the case, Summer League fame can be fleeting.
Maybe the best place to be is on the bench, like Doncic, and keep people guessing that you’re really good.
Such is life in Summer League, especially in a social media age. Young will always be compared to Doncic because of that draft-night trade, although that’s not entirely fair. Remember, the Hawks also got an extra first-round pick, and suppose the player taken with that pick turns out better than Young and Doncic? The verdict from that trade won’t be known for years, although that doesn’t prevent anyone from declaring a winner right now.
That brings us back to Summer League and this disclaimer for those consumed by it: Enjoy what you see, but don’t believe what you see.
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